Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Will Return on November 30th

Due to the holiday, Rebel Frequencies will go on a short break. Regular posts will resume on November 30th. Make sure to check back in then! Upcoming articles will include a review of The (International) Noise Conspiracy's brand new Cross of My Calling, and an interview with Son of Nun.

Stay Free,
Alex

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Bloody Brilliant


The following are excerpts from a recent interview that appeared in the UK's Socialist Review with John McClure of the group Reverend and the Makers. Though virtually nobody on this side of the pond has heard of this group, they have been making waves in Britain for the past year. Their sound is right smack in the middle of that rock-driven electro dance pop that has been gaining attention recently.

Reverend and the Makers have also been more recently speaking out on, as they put it, "the state of things." Though McClure's left-wing politics haven't been overt, the lead single "Heavyweight Champion of the World" nonetheless speaks to that working class instinct that we all deserve better. If the seed has always been there, then it has come to full flower in the past year, specifically with McClure himself speaking out against the war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine. Outraged by the rise of the far-right in British politics, they have also allied themselves with Love Music Hate Racism, and are slated to play the organization's Northern Carnival in 2009.

The timeliness of their sound, combined with increasingly political times means that Reverend and the Makers, given the opportunity, could definitely find an audience in the States. Currently, though, American distributors seem to be deliberately snubbing their nose on anything interesting happening outside the lower 48. For those willing to seek them out, however, Reverend and the Makers are well worth devoting some quality listening time to.

Below are some highlights from Lee Billingham's interview where McClure ("the reverend") takes up issues like the conservatism of the music industry, the increasing influence of LMHR, and the not-to-be-taken-lightly decision for an artist to take sides.

*****

How do you feel about the music industry and the extent to which you can express yourself, particularly regarding political ideas and lyrics?

It's difficult because here there's no one doing it. There are people like Damon Albarn, Ian Brown and 3D from Massive Attack and people like that, but among new artists there's only me and MIA who seriously and permanently question British government foreign policy.

That is really dark compared to the counter-culture in the 1960s and the punk movement in the 1970s and Red Wedge in the 1980s. They were a kind of social voice but now there's none. This is at a time with the current economic situation, being at war in two countries, with the possibility of a war in a third country - or fourth if you include Pakistan - there's the situation with climate change and there's the rise of the BNP.

I would argue we need a politicised voice more than ever, but within mainstream music there's no one, and you have to ask yourself why. I think one of the reasons is that it has been recently a bit of a commercial suicide to entertain politics in your music.

But my heroes were political - Bob Marley, John Lennon, Joe Strummer. It's become un-cool to care about the world you live in. It's become cool to take crack. I don't think that's a rebellious act. I think it's far more rebellious to question the country we live in and the government. I never fell out of love with the idea of it being cool to care about the world you live in.

Do you think it's something that's actively discouraged in the music industry? Did you, personally have to be more subtle or have you always been overt with your messages?

I'd sooner be more overt, and increasingly the messages are becoming more overt. When I first came out two years ago the climate wasn't there for me to be saying these things but now people are saying, "Maybe you're right actually."

I think there is conservatism in the music industry because of vested interests. But then there are really good people in the music industry too. There are some good journalists at the NME and there are some good people who work in the industry who want change. People are thinking, "We're bored of guitar bands doing the same old shit," and looking for something of a little more substance.

*****

What do you think about the rise of the BNP and using the culture of music as a weapon against them?

The rise of the BNP has been fuelled by the right wing media who are putting the blame on immigrants. The blame within society should be over the mismanagement of the economy and foreign policies by successive Tory and Labour governments.

The problem isn't immigrants. Unfortunately the fuel being thrown onto the fire by the right wing press is making white working class people, who are looking for someone to blame for the things they see to be wrong with society, put their faith in the BNP. But what these people think they are doing is safeguarding Britain. What they're actually doing is giving power to Nazis, people we fought a war against. I remember talking to an ex-RAF fellah. He said he didn't understand it: "I fought for six years against them Nazis only for them to get elected where I live." I thought that pretty much summed it up.

Other musicians taking a stand against them is good, because young people listen to music and also there's a much funkier and cooler message in it than marching up and down a street with Dr Martens boots on.

It's sad to say, but looking at the music world people seem to be more into making money than they are into making any sort of statement. I think it'll be a bit like the speculators in the stock exchange - they'll be caught out for that. They'll be caught out for chasing dollars. They've got no substance. I'll laugh at them when that comes. They won't have any career left. Their own greed will be their downfall.

*****

One of the first things that brought you into politics was the illegal invasion of Iraq. What do you think about the situation in the Middle East now?

I think the occupation of Iraq should end, primarily because the Iraqi people don't want the US or British troops there. Everything else is an irrelevance. The other problem is people don't talk about Israel. People are scared to talk about it because of accusations of anti-Semitism. The state of Israel, however, is holding the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people to ransom, and Gaza has become a big concentration camp. Hamas, whether people like it or not, were the democratic choice. If we go around the world espousing the merits of freedom and democracy we have to respect other people's choices. We can't have democracy but only when it's the people we want to get in. You can't espouse freedom and democracy while we're allying with Azerbaijan or Saudi Arabia, two of the world's most brutal dictatorships.

The Israeli government should accept the fact that they have to come to a permanent accommodation with the Palestinian people the same way that the white South Africans and white Rhodesians did, because the three of them were all in alliance in terms of counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism manoeuvres. In actual fact there's not a lot of difference really. For Barack Obama and US presidents to just blindly profess their support for Israel, no matter what it does, is very dangerous. And we have no cause to be in Iran at all. The US aren't going to be able to win in a military fashion. It's just not going to be possible.

As well as the politics of your music you give expression of an experience, particularly a working class experience, and perhaps an experience of the north of England.

There's a slight bit of humour in it, I think. You hear it in a lot of Sheffield music - a bit of cynicism. We've been fucked over for so many years I think people resort to humour. Hearing Jarvis Cocker's lyrics and Richard Hawley's and my own, it's that slightly tongue in cheek, "It's shit up here, innit? But let's have a laugh." My first record was quite regionally specific. It's located in the working class because that's where I come from. I could never make that record twice because that's not where I am anymore, but it's certainly rooted in that. I don't want to be a rock star who talks about leaving Sheffield. There's only me and Richard Hawley who still live in Sheffield of the Sheffield musicians, and I think that keeps you grounded.

The 1980s Sheffield scene seems to run through your music. What's your attitude to making music?

I'm very open-minded and I owe a lot of debt to Cabaret Voltaire, Human League and Pulp. I think the thing is that in the 1980s everyone was so skint that they couldn't afford new gear. Everyone ended up with analogue synthesisers and stuff.

Sheffield has always had an artistic community and because all the steel factories shut down the students and the artists could move into them and use them. That's why electronica took off because people were saying, "We've got a synth and an empty room. Shall we do something with that?" That's literally how it began, and in that regard it's a really organic thing. I think people assume Sheffield music began and ended four years ago with the Arctic Monkeys, but there's a lot of things happening - Warp Records and Squarepusher, and everything from Cabaret Voltaire and Human League era. It's a very vibrant city, I think our music is a fusion of all of the stuff put together.


*****

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Reverend and the Makers - The State of Things
This Sheffield, UK pop group has been kicking around Britain for a year now, and though they've barely been noticed in the US, their sound is incredibly catchy--fist-pumping yet danceable. "Heavyweight Champion of the World," the lead single off the album, recalls that short time in the early 80s when dance pop actually had substance to it: soaring, shimmering, yet simultaneously grounded in reality and our struggles with it. It's been a long time since anyone has been able to say that about pop.

2. Broadcast Live - Boomerang Metropolis
See my post from earlier in the week. Broadcast Live's sound isn't necessarily unique for its unfamiliarity, but rather because their specific mixture of hip-hop, indie, punk and other styles is unlike any other group that aimlessly wanders into the now-cliche waters of "rap-rock." Perhaps that's because this group has purpose to it. The blend of styles they bring to life aren't just "cool sounding," but the best possible vehicle for the range of issues and emotions they seek to give voice to. Gentrification, racism, sexism, war, all are up on BL's chopping block, and they proceed to eviscerate.

3. Thievery Corporation - Radio Retaliation
Thievery's approach to "chill-out" music is a breath of fresh air in a normally mind-numbing genre. Their eclectic samples incorporate everything from Brazillian jazz to Asian rhythms, fusing together a kind of--and I've used this term to describe the group before--electronic internationalism. Radio Retaliation takes their now-covert, now-overt radicalism and sharpens it. the title is no coincidence. This album definitely sounds like the communiques flowing down from the guerillas in the mountains, the soundtrack of rebellions to come.

4. Mr. Lif - I Phantom
"[A]n exploration of the dynamics of everyday life, and the pursuit of our dreams, in a rapidly decaying society." That's how Lif describes this album. A blazing-hot provocation, and at the same time a pressure release valve for anyone sick of being told we don't amount to anything. This is the album that in 2002, when the mainstream media was hailing a "revival" in the economy (dumbasses), gave voice to what that recovery actually looked like: sick and tired, a nation filled with folks who couldn't wait to "punch the clock right off the wall!"

5. RJD2 - Since We Last Spoke
it's been kind of a Def Jux week for me. RJD2 lays down some of the best beats in the business. Intricate, yet unpretentious, he is never predictable (look at his latest release: stripped down, straight up pop songs more than soundtracks) but at the same time you always know it's him laying it down. This record sees him branching into more rock-inspired sounds, without losing his distinctive hip-hop bottoms and abstract edges. Placing it in his full-on evolution as a DJ and artist, its an interesting bridge between two distinct phases.

*****

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's Hard Bein' Humble in the Belly of Struggle: A Conversation With the Democracy and Hip-Hop Project

Hip-hop is on top of its game right now. After years of abuse, derision, and one attempt after another to push it to the margins, hip-hop's role in the Obama victory has rekindled the debate about music, politics, and the role they play in our everyday lives.

The Democracy and Hip-Hop Project is a blog founded in 2006 by two New Orleans based activists: Krisna Best and LBoogie. Their mission is to promote the idea of hip-hop as bottom up culture. They have been unapologetic in defending hip-hop against its detractors in the mainstream media, while maintaining an analysis that at its root, hip-hop is an expression of what it means to struggle in modern America. Krisna and LBoogie recently talked with SleptOn's Alexander Billet about hip-hop's past and present, its politics and future, and the struggles that face the hip-hop generation today.

Alexander Billet: How did the Democracy and Hip-Hop Project come about and what were the reasons for it? What is it that you think Hip-Hop can tell us about the world?

Krisna Best: Back in the late 90s when I was still a bedroom DJ and producing for a variety of local Kansas City hip-hop artists, I started a website as a place to upload my music and share updates about what I was working on, etc. Because I was always political and music was many times an avenue by which I would inveigh my politics, I would also add a bit of political commentary on the site. I eventually quit making music and spinning records, but I kept the site going and used it instead to publish my perspectives about hip-hop as a whole, not just what I was doing.

At the time, my outlook on hip-hop was very conservative--not conservative strictly in the political sense, because I always considered myself Left, but in the sense that I had a very antiquated set of ideas about what hip-hop was supposed to be and look like, and when much of it didn't look that way anymore, I concluded that hip-hop had been hijacked by white art students. When I was young I listened to a lot of gangsta rap (and I still do), but by the mid 90s I was swept up into the b-boy revivalism that was taking place and so by the time it began to decline and many of the folks who identified by that form of hip-hop were increasingly white college kids, the only solution was to "bring it back" to the hood, to people of color and working class whites. This was, of course, as crazy as it sounds and the problem with this is that people of color and working class whites had already redefined hip-hop and were at the forefront of innovating completely new forms that had bypassed the so-called four elements categories that I was still stuck in.

Nonetheless I continued working out my ideas on the site which I had renamed the Economic Foundations of Hip-Hop which was informed by a sort of deterministic Marxism. A very close comrade of mine, Rob Odell, an MC who went by the name "Treason", was a central part of this working out of ideas because we recorded and performed together and had similar problems with the local "underground hip-hop" milieu that we ran in. By late 2004, I had one of those intellectual breakthroughs, a leap, where I began to see hip-hop as something not limited to the artists who made hip-hop music, but as something that emanated from below, an ethos of sorts, that informed the general direction of hip-hop. I began to see how ordinary people, not just the MCs and DJs, were the ones who provided the context for hip-hop and they did this through their daily struggles at work, at home, and elsewhere.

Throughout the next year, Rob and I began to discuss and think about hip-hop on completely new terms. I wrote a piece about hip-hop and the workplace, about the transformation hip-hop went though during the decline of gangsta rap and the ascendancy of bling-bling. On the latter, Rob wrote a critique (The Dialectics of Hip-Hop) which sent me for another critical leap. At that point, hip-hop was no longer just the product of artists, as I said, it was the activity of common people, right? But I still continued to look at hip-hop as a repository for objective events. So hip-hop was a response to poverty, a response to capitalism, Reaganomics, etc. Sure, hip-hop develops in the context of certain objective conditions, but it also moves by its own internal contradictions. Under my former assumptions, hip-hop had no independent life or dynamic of its own. Rob challenged that and it forever changed the direction my writing would take.

From there I established Democracy and Hip-Hop as a blog in early 2006. The blog format helped simplify and streamline publishing instead of maintaining and hosting a website myself. It also facilitated more consistent writing and reaching out to other writers and blogs that shared similar perspectives, far and few between these others were. Rob wrote rather sparsely, but his theoretical contributions to the blog were hardly sparse since most of my writing was usually off the back of a conversation we had recently had. The fruit of our work was published in late 2006, now called "Theses on Hip-Hop".

Alex: The blog is very open about the influence it takes from Marxist intellectuals and activists like CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs. At first glance this seems to be a weird connection to make to popular culture. What do you think socialist ideas bring to the table when talking about rap and hip-hop?

Krisna: Rob and I, in addition to being artists, were also once a part of a small, independent political organization. Growing dissatisfied with the direction this organization was heading, we started reading a book by C.L.R. James called "Marxism for Our Times" to try to hopefully get some perspective for how we might set ourselves on the right track. This was late 2005, so we had long been thinking and writing about hip-hop and were on the cusp of creating the D&HHP. But what our rigorous discussions gave to us in terms of an appreciation for hip-hop in a new way, James gave to us in politics, economics, and culture altogether. To put it mildly, we were blown away.

James wrote extensively on American popular culture and one of the best examples of this was a book released posthumously called "American Civilization". In many ways, what James did for us was confirm the ideas we were coming to while at the same time offer so much more content and vision. It inspired me to write a blog on American Civilization which I published in June of 2006. And it is through the blog on James that I came to know LBoogie.

I think the biggest influence James had on us was his writings on the drama of ancient Greece and the concept of "universality". The drama of ancient Greece was so important for James because it was a testament to the level of universality a society can reach. Ancient Greece was a society based on direct democracy which was premised on the idea that ordinary people were capable of governing themselves. Therefore, their art and culture was an extension of that form of social organization, an organization which made little distinction between the part of daily living involving production of human needs and artistic expression. There they were highly interwoven.

Our society is not based on direct democracy, so popular culture will necessarily be inhibited by the limits of state capitalism and bureaucratic rule. But ordinary people, specifically the working class and many times through the experience of people of color, through their daily activity and struggle, give us all kinds of inclinations about what kind of society it is possible for us to make. The self-organization of black people in their communities and schools in the 1960s, the wildcat strikes by workers over control of production which continue to this day, the distrust and cynicism towards traditional politics, all these are manifestations of a society trying to break free of the present one. One way we express this is in popular art. This is the import of James. Today, that popular art is hip-hop and we feel that if James were alive today, he like us would be seizing on this new, dynamic form of expression.

Alex: Hip-hop has always had this shadow looming over it; this negative perception of hip-hop as materialistic, bling-obsessed and misogynistic. Where do you think this perception comes from?

LBoogie: This can't be traced to any one source. It's a characterization used by a variety of sources across the political spectrum, so it doesn't always mean exactly the same thing coming from different critics. But it tends to have some common bases.

On the one hand, this argument is a response to very real changes that have occurred within hip-hop over the past 15 years or so, specifically the decline of Gangsta Rap, the rise of "bling bling", and the more recent proliferation of Southern hip-hop. What typically gets said is that bling bling hip-hop and southern rap are no longer about lyricism, no longer have a social message, the music has been manipulated by the music industry and the newer artists have sold out to the pursuit of individual gain and wealth. In some ways, the music industry has had a hand in the shaping of hip-hop since the 90s, but to emphasize it as a deciding factor is to ignore other factors at one.

For one, in the early to mid-90s you had the transition from Reagan-era trickle down economics to the Clintonite "Good Years" of welfare "reform" (or welfare deform as Krisna likes to say), which really represented a new stage in the continued economic attack on inner-city neighborhoods and communities of color. In this context, gangsta rap (which was the prevailing form of hip-hop during that transition) was compelled to change or be overcome by its own contradictions. Gangsta rap wasn't a full negation of capitalist society and was being transcended by a generational and philosophical shift that eventually manifested in bling bling. While gangsta rap embraced working class life and maintained a stoic allegiance that, yeah the 'hood is fucked up but it's all we got; bling bling was like, fuck that, fuck the hood, fuck living hand to mouth, fuck wealth being a privilege, fuck the old simple clothes, the old cars, and all that, we takin' it all by storm.

That's not to say that bling bling was false to its roots; it never fronted and acted like it didn't come out of the hood. Nor was it completely new; elements of it had been expressed through earlier artists (c'mon now, "birthdays were the worst days, now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay"…). Yet a lot of hip-hop fans became critics after seeing this change in the culture, and over time developed a perspective that these newer forms of hip-hop were materialistic and bling-obsessed. Of course, there are problems with bling bling, but there were also problems in gangsta rap and in the so-called golden era before that (show me a rapper that has had a consistent feminist perspective in any era, and I'll be damn impressed). But hip-hop is no pure substance, never was and never will be, and without understanding its duality as both a rejection and an embrace of what is happening in wider society, then hip-hop will never make sense.

So that's one basis for this negative perception of hip-hop. On the other hand, it's an argument rooted in the racial and gender relations within American society. It's no coincidence that hip-hop gets typecast as being more misogynistic than any other music genre or cultural form; nor that it's associated with violence more than any other, and the "wrong" kind of violence at that; nor that it's actually blamed for causing much of the depravity of present-day society.

Such negative characterizations, in one form or another, have historically been the ideological backbone for political attacks against communities of color. Hip-hop by its very nature is associated with people of color's cultural and political traditions. When white supremacists want to justify their racism towards people of color, they attack hip-hop as evidence of the latter's supposed degeneracy. Don Imus is a recent prominent example of this, but there are others. The very same critics who couldn't care less that women still make lower pay than men in most jobs, or that one out of every four women will experience some type of sexual violence in their lifetime, or that the invasion of Afghanistan didn't "liberate" Afghani women (imperialism never does) – they are the ones now on a crusade against misogyny in hip-hop. It's reminds me of the old saying…with friends like these….

Alex: The other side of the coin seems to come from those on the left, who have an expectation that hip-hop should be a lot more "conscious." Is this a wooden view to take of the music?

LBoogie: Absolutely. It's also a reflection of how some tendencies among the left view culture, if we can momentarily define hip-hop narrowly as a cultural movement and expression. Since the early 20th century, if not before, the left has recognized that culture is a contested terrain among which the conflicts and contradictions of daily life play out. Some left tendencies have viewed culture as an important sphere for understanding and recording the self-activity and self-government of working folks. We see C.L.R. James as an example of such a tendency and at D&HHP we've tried to continue in this tradition. Other left tendencies view culture as a space to compete for the "hearts and minds" of working people. In other words, there are "reactionary" and "revolutionary" forms of culture, and it is the left's job to create those "revolutionary" forms which can bring a "conscious" and militant politics to working people. Often, those who critique hip-hop for not being more "conscious" are of this tendency.

It's precisely because of the logic that political consciousness is "brought" to people that makes many ignore the political character of hip-hop, even mainstream hip-hop. They're too busy looking for revolutionary keywords (just listen to any Immortal Technique song for the full litany), explicit critiques of imperialism or white supremacy, shout-outs to Che, Mao, Lumumba. Most hip-hop doesn't operate on those terms, so a lot of times what you see instead is the left identifies "conscious" rappers who become the "vanguard" for all hip-hop. The holy trinity of "conscious" mainstream hip-hop is Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, and in underground hip-hop it can be anyone from Immortal Technique to Blue Scholars.

But what is conscious hip-hop really? What is its content? Lupe Fiasco participated in a hip-hop forum here in New Orleans about a year ago, and someone asked him how to get people to stop listening to rappers like Young Jeezy and listen to more "conscious" rappers. Lupe responded by saying that Jeezy is a conscious rapper because he interprets the world he interacts with. And people interpret their world in the language they speak.

George Lamming, famed Caribbean writer and a contemporary of C.L.R. James, once commented on the inability of the left to "communicate politics." He felt that the most radical and profound kind of politics can actually be communicated without any political talk taking place. That's often how political ideas are discussed within hip-hop. The fact that many left tendencies cannot do this, let alone understand it, points to how isolated the left is today from the working class and its cultural traditions.

Alex: A recent post on D&HHP revolved around "hipster rap," this crop of artists like the Cool Kids and Kidz in the Hall that reach back to pre-gangsta, late 80s aesthetic, yet their sound is thoroughly modern. Does this represent something new or is it simple nostalgia? What do you think it represents?

Krisna: I really believe that the youngest of the hip-hop generation is what gives hip-hop its vitality. They are the least conservative and nostalgic about anything. They haven't lived long enough to be nostalgic and are constantly creating a hip-hop that represents them and their world. They could give a fuck about Kool Herc and Bambaataa, or KRS-One and Chuck D, Tribe or De La. For us older generation folks (older is relative here, I'm only 28), that is a bad thing because we tend to place emphasis on "knowing your history" and "staying true" and all that other nonsense.

The Hipster Rap thing evades many older hip-hop heads. For some of us, it means hip-hop is "coming back" or redeeming itself. For others, it is a further indication that hip-hop and civilization as a whole is dead because it supposedly reveals that we cannot create anything new. We abhor both of those perspectives. This is not hipster rap; that is, if we're talking about the Cool Kids, Kidz in the Hall, Kid Sister, or other artists to emerge from within this aesthetic vein. There may be a hipster rap, but if there is, it is mainly white, New York art students who not only take the appearance of old school rap, but actually replicate its sound, delivery, and lyrical content. This is real hipsterism and it is depraved, but the reason for its depravity is because it is driven by an elitist view that these people are above society, that they look down from their ivory tower to mock what ordinary folks have done. It is not even counterculture, because counterculture folks at least have a sense of values; that popular culture is bankrupt and that we need a culture of opposition. This is a good instinct, but just like backpacker hip-hop today, they cannot find an independent basis for their existence. They exist only to oppose and cannot find in popular culture the tendency of common folks to resist. Pop culture ain't counterculture, but pop culture does counter, no doubt.

But I can see the reason why folks are calling this hipster rap. They see the immediate aspects; the hairstyles, the clothes, etc. and conclude that this is hipsterism. As you said, their sound is thoroughly modern. But they can't see that hip-hop is a continuum and not a pendulum. Hip-hop does not go back. 90s b-boy revivalism didn't go back, even if they thought that's what they were doing. What hip-hop does is save up its experience so that the new forms become a part of the whole. The 80s is done, but the experience is still with us and animates to some degree our hip-hop today, just as the 90s does.

Alex: This election season there have been an unprecedented amount of artists who have openly sided with the Obama campaign, and it seems that hip-hop has played a role in the election it never has on this level (everything between the Obama mixtape and Kanye playing the DNC). What do you make of this?

LBoogie: This is a great question. This is something we've followed closely for the better part of this long election season. To answer that properly (albeit briefly) we have to consider both why hip-hop is able to be a vibrant political participant in this election process, and also what wider currents are at hand in the U.S. that have made this such an historic election.

What does it say that the DNC invited Kanye? Or that the Obama campaign felt compelled to publicly distance itself from that Ludacris song, "Obama Is Here"? These are important indications of the ways in which official society is forced to recognize and respond to hip-hop as a legitimate social and political force it must contend with. It is competing for the attention of a restless and angry generation whose music is more than just a collection of hit songs or celebrity rappers, it reflects a philosophy of life that rejects much of what official society stands for.

It's a contradictory philosophy, no doubt, but in it you can see the recognition of the alienation of the current way of life ("All through the week, I've been at work, doing my job / Then somebody told me, the weekend's just for me", Kelis on "Weekend"); a rejection of that alienation ("To hell with just gettin by and economizing / It's kinda hard bein humble in the belly of struggle", Busta on "Been Through the Storm"); and a vision of change ("I'm from the school of the hard knocks, we must not / let outsiders violate our blocks, and my plot / let's stick up the world and split it fifty/fifty / Let's take the dough and stay real jiggy", Jay Z on "Hard Knock Life").

This election was much bigger than one man or one political party. In different ways, hip-hop's support for Obama was both a no-vote and a yes-vote. In 2000 and 2004, the failed electoral strategies that dominated social democratic-left politics was the "anybody but Bush" approach. That failed to win either mass support or mass energy, and not only because the opposing candidates were about as exciting as watching paint dry.

This time around, the mobilization and energy that was galvanized within hip-hop was not just a rejection of Bush, it was a rejection of three decades worth of failed neo-liberal ideology. The ongoing economic crisis only sharpened these existing sentiments. "They been sellin us a dream, tellin us we on the same team, now we all gotta deal with the lie" (Mary J. Blige on "Something's Gotta Give"). At the same time, it was an embrace of a larger vision of a fully multiracial U.S. – something hip-hop has instinctually cultivated from day one. There's been a push from Obama's campaign and segments of official society to also encourage a multiracial vision, but it's different. Multiculturalism from above is just another form of white supremacy. But multi-culturalism from below is a manifestation of hip-hop's desire to bring to all areas of social life the multiracial community and solidarity it has already cultivated in the cultural realm.

It was also an embrace of a desire for young people and working people to see themselves in the driver's seat of making history, on their own terms. Precisely because this mobilization is larger than Obama, it is likely that it won't be able to be contained within the channels of official society. We'll have to keep our eyes open to see where the hip-hop generation goes from here.

Originally published at SleptOn.com

*****

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Beginning of a Dream and the "E.N.D." of... Something

A quick peek on what the music world has in store for us in 2009:

Bruce Springsteen will be releasing Working on a Dream on January 27th. It will be his third album with the E Street Band since their reunion six years ago. The Boss says that most of the songs were, "written quickly," and that recording was done "during the breaks on last year's tour." The intention is to capture the power of live show on the record.

It will be interesting to see how the album reads in Obama America. Bruce was very gung-ho about the Obama campaign (even more so than he was about the "Vote for Change" tour four years ago), and the feeling of hope and redemption that many took from that campaign is sure to be peppered throughout Working on a Dream.

The majority of Springsteen's career has been spent in the grip of neoliberal presidencies--Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr.--and he has almost never bent when siding with the struggle of working people. During the 90s his ire against Clinton's NAFTA and the way immigrants are treated showed this to be true even during ostensibly popular regimes. In an era where sky-high hope and utter misery are bound to collide, it will be interesting to see what form Bruce and company's message takes.

*****

Lupe Fiasco has also announced his upcoming release, LupE.N.D. The album is scheduled to be not one, not two, but three discs, with the "E.N.D." standing for the name of each one: "Everywhere," "Nowhere," and "Down Here."

Lupe definitely has the chops to pull off a triple album. He has a great ability with putting forth artistic concepts that aren't pretentious or preachy. At the same time, hip-hop is moving onto a new plateau, a new phase being pushed by the reinvigorated confidence coming out of the elections. How that new phase takes form, however, is still yet to be seen. Given how diffuse the genre is at present, where the style lands is anyone's guess. With Lupe being at the top of his game, an album this expansive could push hip-hop into one direction or another.

That may be even more true considering that the MC has announced that LupE.N.D. will be his last album! Lu has long said "I don't want to get to the point where I'm putting out music just to put out music. " It's an admirable sentiment considering how many artists keep going long after they should have called it quits. Last words from great MCs can have a wide effect on music. If LupE.N.D. is indeed his last word, and if it is as far-reaching as he intends it to be, then its influence could be heard for a long while afterwards.

*****

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Music They Can't Drive Out


Heading into Humboldt Park last night, it was hard not to notice the specter of gentrification looming over the neighborhood like a bad vibe. Real estate signs can clearly be seen seeping into the edges of this working class, heavily Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. The only signs more prevalent than these are the ones that proudly protest "Humboldt Park: Not for Sale!"

There is a lot for Humboldt to be proud of. While the diversity of so many neighborhoods has been wiped out by developers and replaced with Starbucks and lily-white, Humboldt has managed to stick by its roots. A massive Puerto Rican flag over Division Street greets you as you pass the park itself. Right down the street is Adalberto Methodist Church, where Elvira Arellano sought refuge from immigration officials as she fought her deportation. Working class artists and musicians, bohemians and activists have all found a niche in this area of town.

The reason I came into Humboldt was to attend a fundraiser at a local community center, El Batey Urbano. My friend Son of Nun was in town, and was guesting at this fundraiser with two groups from the east coast that I had never encountered. I say now that I am very glad I went.

The two groups SON was performing with were Broadcast Live, and Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde. Both are radical, musically eclectic, and brought an energy to that small community space that lit up the place! Those who doubt the power of music to inspire and organize would do well to hear the work of these two groups.

Broadcast Live's sound is rather hard to pin down, but that's only because it takes the best of so many different styles and make them all their own. Lyricist Victorio spits with confidence and utter devotion as the rest of the group delivers a hard-edged blend of hip-hop driven indie rock. Much more than sheer power, though, the group often takes a step back to settle into a slow, simple-yet-intricate soundscape and contemplate on the inner struggle of living in a world that clearly doesn't want you to exist. In Humboldt, this resonates. By the time they launch into "Boomerang Metropolis," the audience is on their feet, and there isn't a soul in the place who doesn't identify with the refrain of "motherfucker, get off my block!"

If Broadcast Live were a tidal wave of resistance, then Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde were a hurricane, swirling and weaving rather than blasting open, while not losing one bit of resolve or strength. Like Broadcast Live, their sound is hard to pin, drawing on jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and the incendiary energy of Nuevo Cancion and throwing them into a solid folk-rock. Though the group as a unit wouldn't work if any one member were missing, front-woman Asili is undoubtedly the focus, bringing a proud defiance to her work. Equal parts Lauryn Hill, Ani DiFranco and Lila Downs, the group's songs embodied the kind of power that only ordinary people have when they are able to raise their voices.

If Mayor Daley walked into El Batey last night, he would have had no clue what was going on.

Though the crowd was small last night, it was still undeniable that we were watching artistic power from the bottom up. This is the kind of vibrance and solidarity that all-too-many city councils have forgotten about (if they ever recognized it in the first place). More people need to hear these kinds of groups, if only so they can remind us what we're fighting for.

*****

Monday, November 17, 2008

What I'm listening to... (late edition)

Because I was attending the Midwest Socialist Conference this past weekend, I couldn't get to a computer in time to put up my Saturday list. Obviously, there is much to catch up with after such a jam-packed weekend. Among the highlights this upcoming week will be a conversation with the folks at the Democracy & Hip-Hop Project. Stay tuned...

In the meantime, here's last week's playlist:

1. Jurassic 5 - Power in Numbers
Keep coming back to it. It's addictive, especially knowing that there's a good shot that they won't be making anything new again. Artists like Blu wouldn't exist without the influence of groups like J5, who really helped that eclectic, post-gangsta West Coast sound evolve. Most of these songs you can't help but have stuck in your head for days afterward (or, in my case, years). "Freedom," "High Fidelity," "Golden," and of course, the "oh, snap" worthy "Day At The Races." As amped as I am that Chali 2Na is back with Ozomatli, he's simply not the same without Zaakir, Akil, Chemist, Mark 7even, and NuMark.

2. Son of Nun - The Art of Struggle
S.O.N. is performing here in Chicago at a fundraiser for Haymarket Books on the 13th of next month. Can't wait! As a follow-up to Blood and Fire this album works incredibly well. The lyrics are more personal, and the beats more organic. Yet he hasn't lost one bit of his talent or fervor for social change. Indeed, they seem to have deepened, especially on tracks like "Fire Next Time" and "Pastures of Plenty." An interview with S.O.N. covering this album is also upcoming. So stay tuned and check him out on tour.

3. Scritti Politti - Anomie & Bonhomie
There are two kinds of Scritti fans--those who like their early, gritty and more avant-garde work, and those who were introduced to them after they became big in the mid-80s. This is the only album that has earned the respect of both types. Scratchy guitars, staccato drumming, a keen sense of minimalism, and the well-layered influence of rap and reggae blend incredibly well on this album. It's certainly easy to go for their abrasive, raw (and more Marxist influenced) early stuff, but cutting oneself from their mainstream years means missing brilliant records like this one.

4. M.I.A. - Kala
Since "Paper Planes" has taken off, M.I.A. has exploded. For the irony-laden Williamsburgites she's already passe simply for that reason, and those are precisely the middle-class elitists that give hipsters a bad name (the working class ones anyway). Her recent EP (released a few weeks back) show that she is still experimenting, still as uncompromising as she ever was. Kala remains a rich, diverse and thought-provoking record with real content to it. Ad agencies clearly have no clue that the aforementioned "Paper Planes" is dedicated to the idea of poor Third Worlders taking back the money the West has stolen from them. Truly dense.

5. Say Hi - Ferocious Mopes
This indie-synth-pop group have gained a following the old fashioned way: frequent records, constant touring and hard, hard work. Interestingly enough, while there is the frequent irony we've all come to almost expect from indie-rock, this album also has a very heartfelt sincerity to it. A lot like Flaming Lips, their humor isn't used to cover up a vulnerability, but rather to reveal one. It puts a different spin on nerd-dom entirely, and is more endearing than any of the cynicism that finds itself fading on the indie circuits nowadays.

*****

Friday, November 14, 2008

Collisions Ahead


If there's one word that can sum up what happened last Tuesday, it would have to be "catharsis." The election of Barack Obama set off a mass of spontaneous celebrations; dancing in the street from Harlem to the Castro. It's not hard to see why. After eight years of Bush, to see the Republican agenda roundly routed and replaced with the first Black president in the nation's history is truly a thing to behold. And though an Obama administration is going to be significantly limited by his corporate backers and Clinton-oid cabinet, right now people--especially young people--feel empowered.

If the vast majority of youth were energized by the prospect of an Obama victory, then it's no wonder why the same was true for some of music's most dynamic acts. There were, of course, the perennials like Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys. But what stood out were the artists whose acclaim has only arrived in recent years.

Artists as disparate as the Arcade Fire, Common, Vampire Weekend and Santogold threw a considerable amount of weight behind the Obama camp. Looking back it seems impossible to even list all the artists who took the opportunity to lend their voices. Compare this to the fact that John McCain couldn't even get Abba on his side, and you start to get the picture of how much things have swung.

Of course, musicians endorsing candidates is nothing new. Readers may remember the failed "Vote For Change" tour of 2004, where musicians rallied around the simple and rather uninspiring mantra of Anybody But Bush.

What is striking to this writer, however, is how many of the artists backing Obama this time around want a lot more than just a new face in the White House. A recent issue of the indie-music magazine Under the Radar produced especially for the election carried a photo-spread of of artists holding up self-made placards with demands like "End This War Now!" (Sharon Jones) or "Subsidize Wind and Solar Energy," (the Decembrists), outrageous facts like "96% of musicians lack healthcare" (the Dresden Dolls), or simple sentiments like "I Want to Live in Woodrow Guthrie's America" (Akron/Family).

It's this kind of--dare I say--hope that stands in glaring contrast to 2004. The excitement for palpable change, and the feeling that we can play a role in it, are palpable. This election has seen even the most apolitical artists raise insightful ideas about the shape of politics itself. "It might be that this just isn't a good system anymore," says Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, "The one president might not be the answer to the whole thing. We might need to redraw this... We're voting for the fucking class president, but we're not actually voting for the principal."

Hip-hop in particular found itself a lodestone in these elections. When one thinks of the slings and arrows that the genre has endured over the past several years then it's easy to get an idea of how big of a deal this really is. Industry big-wigs like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons were predictably over the moon about the candidate, but the truly impressive voices came from the likes of Outkast, the Roots, Joe Budden, Nas, T.I., Akon and countless other MCs and artists.

Given the treacherous waters that MCs have had to navigate in recent years--from Imus to Sean Bell--it's no wonder that the Obama campaign became a rallying point for the anger and fears, hopes and dreams that hip-hop has always conveyed. This kind of fervor was so tangible that Obama can claim what no other presidential candidate (let alone president) can: his own mixtape. Courtesy of Russell Simmons and DJ Green Lantern, the "Yes We Can" compilation was released in October with the specific intention of rallying heads around an Obama victory.

Featuring artists like David Banner, Wyclef, Joell Ortiz among many others, the release also features snippits from Obama's primary campaign, which were notably more populist and left-wing than anything the president elect has said since his nomination was sealed. But these soundclips say more about the motivations of the artists than the politician. As blogger Pham Binh points out:

"The clips are a fresh reminder of how quickly Obama jettisoned references to the Civil Rights movement, the Abolitionists, and the Suffragettes once he locked up the Democratic nomination... Judging by the lyrics, it seems that most of the artists on the mixtape fell in love with the Obama that won the primaries using anti-war, anti-free trade, pro-movement rhetoric."

They weren't the only ones from the look of it. This election saw the biggest bloc of 18-to-22-year-olds voting since the 1950s. These are young people who have grown up in a multiracial version of America, the first ones to be sent to Iraq, and who have known nothing but the same neoliberal raw deal that offers them nothing now past the promise of flipping burgers and crumbling schools. Whether Obama can deliver anything different has yet to be seen. But expectations run high, and if they aren't met it would be cynical to say these same young people wouldn't hold him accountable.

It's been over forty years since music, youth culture and popular resistance collided into what we know now as "the Sixties." That kind of defiant hope has been gone from both our music and politics for far too long. But if so many of today's best artists can become excited about real substantial change, it may be a sign that cobwebs are clearing. And if a victorious Obama campaign can become a lightening rod for the long-brewing discontent and longing among today's youth, then it may provide a glimpse of collisions to come.

Originally published at Znet

*****

Thursday, November 13, 2008

This is Our Country

Every year it becomes harder and harder to watch the awards shows. This goes double for the CMAs. If readers need better proof of how the music industry is out of touch, and how it can turn music into a parody of itself, then the Country Music Awards are the thing to watch.

Last night's show featured all the usual suspects: Carrie Underwood, George Strait, Taylor Swift. And boy, did they trot out the stereotypes! A quick snippit from MSN.com's wrap-up:

"[An] animation behind Alan Jackson, which flashed boots, gee-tars, mud-flap ladies, frosty tall ones ... just before that random pep squad ran up and down the aisles to two-step. We actually forgot what song he sang."

It gets more atrocious every year. What's worse is nobody's telling them to stop! If one takes their view of country music solely from these shows, then yes, all the stereotypes of cowboy hats and vapid, red-state values are going to be true. The tragedy is that of all the false images in music, this one of country fans being a bunch of gun-toting, warmongering, racist rednecks is one of the most unshakeable.

That's the problem. Country isn't "red-state music" anymore than rap is "violent and depraved thug music" or punk is "that music where kids cut each other with razor blades and knives." In the world of the lowest common denominator, though, it's easier to pick an image and go with it. Tragically, that image looks a lot like Larry the Cable Guy (shudder...).

If the country industry would pay more than token attention to Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, if they would stop completely ignoring "alt-country" acts like Son Volt and Wilco, and if they would admit that the Dixie Chicks have indeed been proven right after all these years, then we might get an image that is much more in tune with the Heartland.

*****

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Note to Ticketmaster: "You're Still the Industry, and You Still Suck!"

Sound the trumpets and prep the confetti: Ticketmaster is doing away with "convenience" fees. Anyone who has bought a ticket through the industry behemoth over the past fifteen years has experienced these fees--the extra few bucks attached to the already exorbitant overall price of the ticket.

Company president Sean Moriarty has announced a new "all-in pricing" method that will be more straightforward about the full price up front. "We've been advocating for some time that the industry make the fan-friendly move to no-fee or all-in pricing, eliminating add-on fees."

Of course, the elimination of these fees won't bring down the cost of the actual ticket, which still remains outrageously high. It also won't be giving a bigger percentage to the artists.

What was it that Malcolm X said? "If you plunge a nine inch knife into someone's back, then pull it out six inches, you have not made any progress."

*****

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hip-Hop's Struggle: Far From Over

Proof that an Obama victory is far from the end of the struggle. In the wake of last Tuesday's election, Dizzee Rascal appeared on BBC's "Newsnight" to discuss what an Obama presidency means internationally, where the British hip-hop artist was asked "do you ever feel yourself to be British?"



It's a question that no white guest would ever be asked.

For his part, Dizzee is not only one of the UK's best known rappers of late, but someone who has rarely shied away from expressing his own political views, and has been especially vocal in his opposition to racism and the far-right British National Party. He also does quite well when he points out that people, not politicians, make the real difference in society. Perhaps it's his refusal to play the role of the "good negro" that critics and journalists alike are so threatened by.

Hip-hop played a bigger role in this election than any before it, and there's little doubt that it became a key part of Obama's campaign. That his victory is being discussed all over the world shows how far-reaching the implications of this are. But the kind of dream, the kind of world, that hip-hop has always stood for can only be made into reality by artists, activists, and ordinary people. That starts by challenging this kind of racism head on.

*****

Pimped... Out.

Folks have undoubtedly noticed the new masthead. And yes, it looks tight! Of course, I didn't design it myself. Many thanks to Billy at SleptOn for the incredible design and to my partner Shantel Troska for fiddling with the RF layout to get it placed correctly.

Speaking of Shantel, I need to give a shout-out to her excellent new blog Fabulously Feminist. Shantel is a feminist activist and academic, and as her blog shows, she doesn't screw around with it! Articles, newswire, even poetry, this should be an essential stop for anyone fighting for women's rights today!

*****

Saturday, November 8, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Kidz in the Hall - In the Crowd
Fine, call it "hipster rap." It doesn't take away from the fact that it's still good. The label, though, is rather inappropriate simply because they don't play at kind of blank nostalgia that so many hipsters go for. Their employment of Afrobeat, for example, isn't some attempt to revive or pay homage so much as it is to use it in a present context for present demands. That's a distinction worth pointing out in debates about the future of hip-hop.

2. Black Kids - Partie Traumatic
Black Kids' rise has been rather meteoric. A year and a half ago very few knew of them, and now they're essentially the leading edge of the indie scene. There are a lot of groups seeking to resurrect that mutant disco/dance pop sound (many with very laughable results), but the Kids have a very original take on it. By theirselves, the angular guitar and bass and shimmering keys are rather unremarkable. The key, however, is how they work as a whole, which is quite effective.

3. Dangerdoom - The Mouse and the Mask
An incredibly skilled MC and creative DJ save this album from becoming mere novelty. The samples of Adult Swim characters end up adding a lot rather than distracting from the great tracks. Perhaps that's because Doom is using his ability as a lyricist to weave weird stories loosely based on the characters instead of just lifing from the cartoons. He's essentially just taking the absurd nature of the characters on Adult Swim and creating even weirder stories that are at once entertaining and yet somehow can be taken seriously at the same time.

4. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman - The Fabled City
Morello's guitar parts can easily get stuck in your head with this album. For someone just playing on a cheap acoustic, the raw power is surprisingly vivid--then again, this is Tom Morello we're talking about here. After all, this is someone who has spent the better part of two decades exploring how radical lyrics can best be suited by the music. Between the raw confrontation of "Whatever it Takes" and the driving, almost Irish-folk of "Saint Isabelle," it's rather obvious that Morello has a much underrated sense of songwriting.

5. Santogold - Santogold
Santo is the leading edge of the revival that the Black Kids are also part of. Critics keep trying to lump her into R&B (y'know, because she's black?), but ultimately that's because they have this lazy need to categorize everything. What do you call an artist who effectively mixes influences as far-reaching as Aretha Franklin, Blondie and Fela Kuti? How about "the future"? It's been a long time since most people have been able to take pop seriously. Artists like Santo are making that possible again.

*****

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Last night, people were dancing in the streets. Rightfully so. Whether those on the left voted for Obama or not, it's hard to not identify with the sheer joy of delivering a strong defeat to American conservatism and electing the first Black president in a country build on racism.

The catharsis was intense. In Chicago, well over a million people turned out to the big rally at Grant Park. In other cities, where there was no official avenue for the celebrations to be channeled into, there were spontaneous eruptions of hope and the feeling that change, real change, is indeed possible. In DC, thousands of people unexpectedly turned up at the White House to celebrate and shout jeers through the wall at the present administration. The streets of San Francisco's Castro district were flooded with celebrants, despite the ban on gay marriage in California passing. Campuses saw rallies and marches made of hundreds of students shouting and cheering the end of an ugly era.

What Obama does after he gets into office is hard to tell, though he has made clear that he intends to "reach across the aisle," and that this is the time for us to make "sacrifice." To thousands of young people, to the organizers, activists, artists and musicians who have poured their time and passion into the campaign, there is a feeling that even more is possible. That this sea change in politics is happening alongside one of the biggest economic crises this country has ever seen means that we can't stop here.

Now's the time for us to really kick out the jams.

*****

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Raging In the Streets

With America going to the polls today, expectations are running high that a resounding rejection of conservatism is in the works. Yet the energy felt by millions today is something that goes way past spending a few minutes in a voting booth. People want real, substantial change, and more and more have shown their desire to fight for it. What better time for the return of Rage Against the Machine?















When Rage Against the Machine played their first show in seven years at last April’s Coachella Festival, it invoked the wrath of none other than Ann Coulter. Within days of their comeback, the arch-conservative pundit was on Fox News denouncing comments made by frontman Zack de la Rocha as “violent” and “hate speech”, before labeling the group “irrelevant”. Though it may be easy to chalk the segment up to Murdoch-fueled bluster, it also showed that Rage was doing something right.

In an era where bands reunite merely to cash in on empty nostalgia (e.g., Smashing Pumpkins), Rage Against the Machine have returned as their rabble-rousing selves. The past year and a half have seen them put action behind words much as they did before their breakup in 2000. They have spoken out for immigrants rights, publicly allied themselves with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and most recently played shows for protesters at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

The band has rediscovered creative and political confidence that fits these tumultuous times perfectly. This fall has also seen the group’s two most politically outspoken members release material from their own projects. Guitarist Tom Morello has released a second album under his acoustic alter-ego, the Nightwatchman, and De la Rocha has released One Day As a Lion, his collaboration with former Mars Volta drummer John Theodore. If music tells us something about the time we live in, then Rage’s ability to find roots today signifies a shift that this country hasn’t seen in a long time.

There’ll Be No Shelter Here

When asked why Rage was reuniting in early 2007, Morello responded, “Is it a coincidence that in the seven years that Rage Against The Machine has been away that the country has slid into right-wing purgatory? I think not.”

It would be easy to paint this as a statement of supreme arrogance—as if the political future of a country was tied to the actions of one single rock band. But recent polls suggest the US populace has tilted leftward in a big way. Two-thirds of Americans believe that the government should provide universal health care for all its citizens. The war in Iraq is opposed by almost 60 percent of those polled, who think US troops should leave as soon as possible. And with the specter of global recession looming, 62 percent of Americans blame the government’s failure to regulate the banks and mortgage companies and are unhappy that tax-payers have to foot the bill.

This is a far cry from the state of the country in October 2000 when Rage called it quits. The knee-jerk nationalism and dollar-store flag-waving that came in the wake of 9/11 generated a climate largely intolerant of criticism. These were hard years for anyone of radical or even progressive political stance. Rage Against the Machine’s website was shut down by the FBI for a few days and every song in their catalogue was banned by Clear Channel in the wake of 9/11 the attacks.

Since the midterm elections in 2006, though, Americans’ anger and dissatisfaction with the Bush administration’s mismanagement has grown. And the Democrats’ inability to do anything about Iraq coupled with the continuing plummet in Republican credibility has sent growing numbers of young people toward radical ideas and activism. These shifting political winds made it clear that is was only a matter of time before Rage would be swept into the maelstrom again.

Out of the Wilderness

It appears that nobody felt the sting of Rage’s disintegration more than Zack de la Rocha. While the other three members embarked on the successful but notably apolitical Audioslave, De la Rocha all but faded into the background. He made only a few occasional public appearances at union rallies or benefits and released a song here, a song there. He made a solo album that was never released. A few guest appearances were all that the talented lyricist could seem to muster.

De la Rocha discussed these wilderness years with Ann Powers in a recent Los Angeles Times interview: “When I left Rage … first off, I was very heartbroken, and secondly, I became obsessed with completely reinventing my wheel. In an unhealthy way, to a degree. I kind of forgot that old way of allowing yourself to just be a conduit.”

With One Day As a Lion, the first thing one notices is how un-Rage it sounds. John Theodore’s drumming is a free-flowing opposite to Rage drummer Brad Wilk’s hard hip-hop-influenced beats. (De la Rocha describes Theodore as a mixture of John Bonham and Elvin Jones.) The fuzzed-out keyboards, played by the De la Rocha, have a three-chord simplicity to them that is more punk than anything else.

The lyrics, though, are trademark De la Rocha. On the title track, he draws a connection between poor kids in LA and the people of Iraq:

"We comin’ like peoples army
For the people who can’t eat
Who work with no sleep
For the child with no shoes on their feet…
Tear mics till my voice get raspy
Faced flame for five centuries
And if L.A. were Baghdad we’d be Iraqi!"


The EP displays how De la Rocha himself has been emboldened by the shifting political climate. He described the impetus behind the EP’s opener, “Wild International”, to Powers, “The name speaks about a generation of people, a kind of development that I feel. It’s an intuition about people who aren’t going to be so concerned about elections to get what they need. And whose politics aren’t going to revolve around a bourgeois morality. Their interests are going to be focused on food and housing and justice and revenge.”

Brave words? Undoubtedly. And words that could easily be dismissed as radical jargon. But it’s plain that De la Rocha doesn’t take them lightly.

The Black Robin Hood

Tom Morello hasn’t exactly been out of the spotlight like De la Rocha has. Audioslave sold five million albums and toured internationally. His political opinions found lower-profile outlets, like his internet radio show “Axis of Justice”, with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian.

Morello wouldn’t inject politics into his music again until 2003. The guitarist put aside his amps and effects pedals in favor of a cheap secondhand acoustic and developed a style of agit-folk in the vein of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez. Dubbing himself the Nightwatchman, he released One Man Revolution in April 2007, five days before Rage’s reunion show at Coachella.

Morello has brought an impressive amount of outspoken bravado to the project. “The Nightwatchman is the Black Robin Hood of the 21st century,” he declared to MTV, “a reaction against illicit wars, against first strikes, torture, secret prisons, spying illegally on American citizens … and it’s a reaction against a few corporations that grow rich [off] this illicit war while people beg for food in the city streets.”

While One Man Revolution featured very little apart from guitar, the occasional harmonica, and Morello’s deep baritone voice, the followup, The Fabled City, incorporates percussion, organ, piano, steel guitar, and violins. It’s a much more raucous album, a ramshackle call to arms for those battered by the past seven years.

Morello’s lyrics evoke Dylan’s finger-pointin’ songs and Tom Joad-era Springsteen, weaving stories of outcasts stuck between fallen movements and the uprisings of the future. He likens the generals of Guantanamo to “The King of Hell”, prays for the flood waters of Katrina to drown the president, and channels the spirit of the true believer in “Whatever it Takes”:

"Flood waters raise the ramparts
I’ll meet you now wherever you are
I’m here until the frontline breaks
Whatever it takes"


The Microphone Explodes

If there was any doubt that the reunited Rage would be as committed as in their previous incarnation, it was put to rest at recent rallies. As thousands marched in the streets demanding an end to war, inequality and poverty, Rage were among a diverse array of musicians and artists who performed to show their solidarity. Not mere entertainment, these bands were seeking encourage and galvanize the protesters.

In Denver, at the Tent State Music Festival to End the War, they performed for more than 10,000 people. Halfway through their set, Rage brought onstage members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who after the show led a march of thousands to the convention center to demand a meeting with Barack Obama.

In a recent interview, IVAW member Phil Aliff stressed the importance of having a group like Rage allied with them: “The Rage Against the Machine concert is a good example of how to use political music strategically. From the beginning, when the performers started talking about GI resistance, there wasn’t much of a response, but by the end, people were fired up and ready to go.”

At the Republican Convention, protests were characterized by almost constant clashes with police. Activists, journalists, even regular passers-by were sometimes subject to the heavy-handed tactics of the St. Paul Police Department. Rage’s music seemed to complement the chaos on the streets, as well as the unity that the protests showed in the face of riot gear and tear gas.

When police shut down the Ripple Effect festival after Anti-Flag’s set, Rage Against the Machine, who were expected to play, went up sans instruments, and De la Rocha addressed the crowd: “The reality is we’re just four musicians from Los Angeles who have used our voices and our talent and our musicianship and our words to stand up against these unjust policies. And why the fuck are these cops so afraid of us? Are they afraid of us? Nah, they’re not afraid of four musicians. They’re afraid of you!”

From there, Morello and De la Rocha launched into an a capella—yes, a capella—version of “Bulls on Parade”. With armed cops waiting to pounce, the two used a megaphone to perform, with Morello half-singing-half-beatboxing the song’s iconic “wow-wow-chika-wow-wow”.

De la Rocha’s speech during the Republican National Convention (the band performed in Minneapolis during the convention) speaks to the power that a social movement has on artists and musicians. Not only are they back, but they have thrown themselves onto the frontline of protest and activism.

Where this volatile mixture of anger, hope and glimpses of protest goes is anyone’s guess. In a country whose youth are quickly shifting to the left, to say Rage Against the Machine will find an audience is an understatement. They may find something much more powerful: a movement.

This article originally appeared at PopMatters.com

*****

Beyond Elections

A friendly election day message from our good friends at SleptOn.com!



*****

Monday, November 3, 2008

Studs


Studs Terkel died on Friday. It seems somehow eerie that on the verge of the worst economic recession in six decades we should lose the writer who, among other things, chronicled the voices of those who survived and fought during the Great Depression.

Terkel's whole life was given to the idea that ordinary people in America deserve a fairer shake than the one they had. Even at 96, he was unapologetic in speaking out against the war in Iraq and stumping for universal healthcare. During the past thirty years, when unions were under full-frontal attack, he still never left the house without some red article of clothing to symbolize his sympathy with the labor movement.

Everything he contributed to the world, from his oral histories of strikers and civil rights activists, to his excellent book on American Jazz, reflected this steadfast belief. The music he played on his radio show varied from folk to jazz to opera, but rather than talking about them in the stilted elitism of a music historian, he always spoke of these songs as a living and breathing part of ordinary people's lives. His interviews with musicians like Bob Dylan, Big Bill Broonzy and Leonard Bernstein convey as much too.

To Studs Terkel, history and culture happened from the bottom up. He wasn't a scholar who tried to impose his beliefs on the truth, he simply let the truth be. It was a powerful contribution, and thankfully it is one we still have today.

*****

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
Sharon Jones' voice has that kind of reverent bombast that we don't hear from most singers, male or female, nowadays. That she's backed by a hell of a band doesn't hurt their cause of reviving that early 70s soul sound, either. What's always been striking about Sharon and the Dap-Kings is how effectively retro their sound is, but upon learning that they are a group only formed in the past decade, it becomes apparent how relevant that sound is to today. Tracks like "Humble Me" and "Something's Changed" are raucous and slightly unhinged, yet possess a style and swagger that that strikes a chord with audiences now and then. Mere "revivalism" is too soft a term for this music.

2. The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium
See my review from earlier in the week. One would think that with the oversupply of Clash re-releases that their sound would become stale and uninteresting. Yet the paucity of widely released live material until a few years ago means that there is a whole fresh side to the Clash that some (including myself) feel hasn't been sufficiently explored. Political speeches are notably lacking on Live at Shea compared to other recordings. But this was a band whose music was their politics, and the determined energy that they bring to a monster stadium like Shea is enough to sound like that one oasis of freedom in the midst of Reagan's America. Though some may not consider it canon, this is an album that deserves to be alongside the Clash's stellar catalogue.

3. Jean Grae and Blue Sky Black Death - The Evil Jeanius
Though this is a collaboration album between Jean Grae and BSBD, and the soundscapes produced by the duo are deep, atmospheric, and often eclectic (they sample the Supremes and Velvet Underground at points), Jean undoubtedly steals the show here. Not only are her rhymes as complex as ever, she seems to be a master at matching mood with subject matter, lyrics with musical quality. Highlights include "Strikes" and the opener "Shadows Forever," where her immense aptitude for story-weaving and truth-telling are complimented by BSBD's beats in a way where neither are overtaking the other. That's not an easy skill to hone, but with skilled artists like these, expectations nonetheless run high. Thankfully, they don't disappoint.

4. Wale - Hate Is New Love
DC hip-hop! What! There is a lot of buzz around Wale's debut full-length early next year. Listening to this mixtape, it's easy to see why. "Uptown Roamers" is a great portrait of the side of DC that we simply don't hear about with all the seat of power rhetoric. And then, at the same time he's never so serious to have the ever-poisonous "conscious" label slapped on him (thank god). There's a lightheartedness that he brings to many tracks that is incredibly refreshing. Overall, his rhymes and flow are intense, yet delivered with enough fun to make you think it's all off the top of his. The way he's blown up over the past year or so without even having dropped a full album is encouraging; the kind of thing that makes you proud to call him a hometown brother.

5. 28 Days Later
I normally don't go for soundtracks as much as I do for "music inspired by the movie" albums. Yet there is something masterly about the 28 Days Later soundtrack. John Murphy, whose compositions dominate this album, is unparalleled in his auditory renderings of the gamut of emotion explored in the film. The songs veer between minimalism and wall-of-sound, between rage and joy, isolation and hope. The haunting sparse nature of "Abide With Me" and "The Church" are incredibly effective in conveying alienation and fear, and yet, that glimmer of hope never seems to fade on any of these tracks. Rather important for our times, no?

*****